What the Dickens! Renowned Victorian author deemed racist

Ann Farmer
July 3, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

A British Green activist, Ian Driver, has openly admitted defacing the Dickens museum in Broadstairs, Kent. Indeed, he took the trouble of warning the police of his intention, and filmed himself daubing the words "Dickens Racist, Dickens Racist" on the building, which was the Victorian author's inspiration for Aunt Betsey Trotwood's home in David Copperfield.

The former Green Party councillor claimed he had tried to use the political system and it didn't work. He was "propelled" to attack the museum after the local council voted to keep a plaque to Uncle Mack, a controversial blackface minstrel.

Moreover, he is prepared to argue his case in court, insisting that the local council had "failed to carry out their public sector equality duty which they are bound to under the 2010 Equality Act". Campaigners have targeted the plaque as "an embarrassment and a shameful spotlight on Britain's racist past" and "a monument to colonial-era bigotry and racism."

Dickens himself has been accused of racism. He is "the latest target of the anti-racism movement sweeping through the UK, which has seen statues pulled down and landmarks vandalised in Bristol, London and Bournemouth", since, "[d]espite his notable sympathy with the disadvantaged working class throughout his works", he has faced growing criticism from modern academics alleging his "grotesque" attitude towards Native Americans, Indians and Jewish communities."

These critics have found support in the Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Literature, which says his view on "colonised peoples" sometimes reached "genocidal extremes", and that in 1854 his Jewish character Fagin in Oliver Twist was bitterly criticised by The Jewish Chronicle. (' Charles Dickens museum defaced with anti-racist graffiti by former councillor' , Telegraph, June 30, 2020)

No wonder Mr Driver has given up on "the political system", aka democracy: after 30 years we still have only one Green MP in Parliament. And doubtless he believes, like the Marxist Black Lives Matter vandals, that direct action is much easier than seeking public approval of a programme of cultural iconoclasm.

In fact, as G. K. Chesterton wrote in Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens (1911) the celebrated author defended the right to life of "savages", eschewing the modern "brutalitarian" extremes of wronging people "because they are nasty" or excusing them like the humanitarians who could not be "just to them without pretending that they are nice."

This has echoes today, as equality and diversity activists refuse to admit that minorities can do any wrong, or for that matter that majorities can do any right – that there is good and bad in all human beings, and it is their behaviour, which people can help, not their colour or ethnicity, which they cannot help, that matters.

In fact, in Oliver Twist, Dickens does not entertain a view of all Jews as bad, describing how, when the evil Fagin is facing the hangman's noose, "Venerable men of his own persuasion" came "to pray beside him, but he had driven them away with curses. They renewed their charitable efforts, and he beat them off."

Moreover, following Jewish criticism of Fagin, Dickens introduced the kindly old Riah in Our Mutual Friend, and although Chesterton doubted that Dickens had invented Riah in response to criticism, he thought that "morally" it would have been a "most worthy" motive. As a character, Riah was unconvincing – "simply a public apology, and like most public apologies, he is very stiff and not very convincing." And although other implicitly Jewish characters "absolutely run riot" through Our Mutual Friend, Chesterton was certain that it was not the intention of Dickens, a "good Liberal" to "sneer" at Jews. The fact that the kindly Riah speaks out against anti-Semitism but also laments that as a money-lender he has given all Jews a bad name, suggests that Dickens was indeed making an apology for Fagin, albeit a rather clumsy one.

Nonetheless, writing to his friend and biographer John Forster from North America in 1868, Dickens criticised the "melancholy absurdity proposal to give African Americans the right to vote", calling the move "a mere party trick to get votes". According to Dickens biographer A. N. Wilson , those who daubed "Dickens Racist" on the museum "were unfortunately accurate in their description."

Wilson cites Dickens' support for Edward John Eyre, Governor of Jamaica, who violently suppressed a plantation workers' uprising in 1865, in which 18 British militiamen were killed; Eyre had 600 Jamaicans flogged, burned down 1,000 houses and killed 439 people. The liberal John Stuart Mill called for Eyre to be prosecuted for murder – for what was "truly monstrous" behaviour, says Wilson.

And as well as the "anti-Semitic" stereotype Fagin, in Bleak House he mocked Mrs Jellyby for her wish to support African charity-work. The "genuinely humane" Dickens, Wilson insists, was also "monstrously unkind, on occasion publicly"; despite being an assiduous prison visitor, he "pressed for even tougher, and more pointless, punishments in British prisons."

Wilson acknowledges that "we are all a mixture of good and bad, and in the case of great geniuses, the extremes of vice and virtue are often glaring." Thus, "When it came to pricking the conscience of the steel-hearted Victorians about child poverty, no one did it better than Dickens", and yet "when it came to imagining what it would be like to work as a poverty-stricken, recently liberated slave in Jamaica, the great novelist's capacity for empathy deserted him."

Consequently, Wilson believes that it is for the magistrates to decide whether vandalising the Dickens museum was justified, concluding that "such actions are, I am afraid, very understandable."

Dickens had actually lived in a workhouse and a debtors' prison, and had experienced extreme poverty, therefore he did not have to imagine the conditions about which he wrote; and like many Victorians – even "liberal" ones like him – he could hardly imagine black men voting, let alone being capable of self-government. Like many others, too, he would support British soldiers in any confrontation.

However, racism and anti-Semitism were not his driving forces, rather it was a strong sense of injustice about the treatment of the indigenous poor which infused his writing, along with mockery of "do-gooders" like Mrs Jellyby, who neglected her own children because she was so concerned about the faraway victims she could not see that she could not see the victims under her very nose.

(In Barnaby Rudge, Dickens, who had harsh things to say about the Catholic Church – not currently a worthy cause for apologies or statue toppling, apparently – had not much time for its persecutors either.)

In short, Dickens was not blind to the injustices suffered by non-white races, despite his sympathy for the British working classes, but vigorously defended the latter as unfashionable under-dogs – much as the woke classes now emote over the plight of minorities and the human rights of terrorists and illegal immigrants, while disdaining those who voted for Brexit.

Dickens was not perfect, but then according to the woke warriors of 2020, no public figure of the past deserves credit for anything whatsoever. Unusually for reformers in any age, he was sympathetic to the disabled, including the mentally disabled, as shown in David Copperfield (Mr Dick), Our Mutual Friend (Sloppy) and also Barnaby Rudge, whose eponymous hero is mentally challenged.

Those who are most exercised by Dickens' alleged prejudice against minorities would do well to take a break from erasing our literary history and learn a lesson from an old Victorian "bigot" on how to treat a real underdog – a minority legally killed before birth simply for the crime of being disabled – not to mention the millions of "unwanted" poor and/or non-white unborn, who get no mention in the rhetoric of "black lives matter".

In fact, their obsession with past injustices and blindness to the injustices under their very noses is strangely reminiscent of Mrs Jellyby; no wonder they want to erase Dickens from the collective memory.